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21 Sep 2021
by Dr Sophie Dix

What is happiness at work...and how can employers support it?

In the early 1800s, factory owner Robert Owen started to introduce some changes to his mill in New Lanark, Scotland. They included free medical care, eight-hour working days (around a century before they became the norm) and free evening lectures for all of his employees. The result? His mill became a model for efficiency and productivity all over the world.


Owen’s approach was one of the first occasions in history that an employer recognised the links between happiness and productivity. After all, isn’t a happy worker a productive worker? Well, yes and no, but we’ll come back to that later. What is clear is that employers still have a huge role to play in supporting the happiness of their workforce. Let’s first try to define what happiness at work actually relates to.

What actually is happiness?

According to the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good magazine, happiness is not a “momentary state” or even a “stream of positive experiences”. Instead, it is defined as “an overarching quality of life that is rich in a variety of emotions, even including episodes of anger, sadness, and stress”. In work terms, happiness is an overall enjoyment of your job and the knowledge that it matters to you.

With that in mind, it’s clear that happiness at work can’t be achieved just by installing a ping pong table in the staff room, allowing pets in the office, or offering free fruit on Fridays (as nice as those things are). Employers must instead create a work culture that makes employees feel valued, helps them achieve a good work-life balance and allows them to foster strong social connections at work.

Which brings us onto our next question.

Are happy workers productive workers?

Although some research suggests that happy workers aren’t necessarily productive workers, the bulk of research done in this area does indicate a correlation between workplace happiness and productivity.

Studies carried out at the University of Oxford and the University of Warwick got similar results on this topic – finding happy workers to be 12-13% more productive. The Warwick study also found that unhappy workers were 10% less productive than normal.

But in order to unlock extra productivity, employers must make a sustained effort to support workplace wellbeing and happiness. There’s no quick fix for this, but here are four ways that your company can start supporting employee happiness.

1. Think about overall job enjoyment, not one-off perks

To really achieve happiness at work, it’s time to start thinking about the things you can do that will affect every aspect of your employees’ lives. They could be flexible working hours, medical insurance, thoughtful benefits, social events, mental health support...all of these are examples of how you can help to improve the mental wellbeing, physical wellbeing and work-life balance of employees.

2. Communicate company values and principles

When employees’ values align with those of the company, it’s easier for them to find purpose in the work that they do. And as Paul Dolan, professor at LSE, and author of Happiness by Design, explains in his bestselling books and his guided programme in our evidence-based wellbeing app, Foundations, purpose brings us pleasure.

Having a sense of meaning behind what we’re doing makes us more likely to feel happy and motivated. But for this alignment to happen, you’ll have to clearly communicate your company’s mission and values regularly, and also hire any new employees in accordance with them. Part of how we do this is with values workshops for new hires. We believe that values are a big part of cultural fit, and cultural fit makes a big difference in employee satisfaction.

3. Promote the social side of your company

For a lot of people, the workplace is their main way of making new friends and connecting with current ones, so it’s important that they feel able to form meaningful relationships with co-workers. If they can do that at your company, you’re likely to have a happier workforce.

You can help this process along by, for example, organising regular social events (virtual or in-person) for your staff to get to know each other. For example, at Koa, we have Slack channels for people who share common interests such as cooking or climbing, as well as a weekly opportunity to meet up for a virtual coffee with colleagues across the team.

4. Make it OK to talk about mental wellbeing

Sadly, when it comes to workplace happiness, and happiness in general, there are no guarantees. If you do have employees that aren’t happy, it’s important to create a company culture that allows them to express their feelings. Creating a safe space to share what they're going through is the first step to prioritising their mental wellbeing. Checking in regularly, and encouraging employees to speak up when they’re struggling, makes it easier for them to request help if they need it. Companies can also remove traditional barriers to access with digital resources that employees can use from their phones.

Happiness isn’t a constant state, and neither companies nor their employees should expect to enjoy work (or anything else) 100% of the time. Nevertheless, organisations have a unique opportunity to make an impact on the overall wellbeing (and yes, happiness) of workers, who spend a majority of their waking hours working. While it’s certainly a significant challenge, isn’t taking care of the people who take care of business worth the investment?

The author is Dr Sophie Dix, VP of content at Koa Health. 

This article is provided by Koa Health.

In partnership with Koa Health

At Koa Health, we believe digital mental health solutions are the answer to mental health issues.

Contact us today

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